We investigated statewide usages and participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Conservation Reserve Program – Transition Incentive Program (CRP-TIP) in South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska, and submitted the following recommendations to the USDA to make regarding program delivery. (Check out our report, "Pathways to Land Access.")
This project is supported by a cooperative agreement (#CCC-DAFP-6-060) between the USDA – Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the following organizations: the Center for Rural Affairs, Dakota Rural Action, and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
1. Facilitating the match between landowner and farmer or rancher
One of the challenges for program participation identified during this project was how to facilitate the match between a landowner and interested farmer or rancher. The landowners and farmers or ranchers must not only find a way to identify and connect with each other, they must also then build a base level of trust and come to a mutual agreement in order for both parties to decide to enroll in the TIP program together.
In order to help facilitate this matching process, we recommend that FSA:
- Identify organizations in every state that maintain networks of beginning, socially-disadvantaged, or veteran farmers and ranchers. This includes grantees of the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), State Departments of Agriculture, and state-based or regional land-link programs.
- Reach out to these organizations to gain their buy-in on being listed as a resource for CRP-TIP. Potential actions that these organizations could be asked to take to support a landowner include: reaching out to their networks with an announcement for interested parties to contact the landowner, and/or sharing information about meetings or conferences that would offer good opportunities for landowners and interested farmers and ranchers to network. To the extent possible, these organizations should be included and flagged in the BRIDGES to Opportunity portal to allow ease in connecting interested farmers or ranchers and landowners with organizations who can assist in “making the match.”
- Identify organizations and resources that can offer landowners support on land transition issues. In order to support landowners and farmers or ranchers who have identified each other and are interested in participating in CRP-TIP, FSA could create a similar list of organizations that offer education and support on questions of land rental and transition.
- Utilize USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coordinators to develop state-level strategies for improving outreach, education, and facilitating the match between landowners and farmers or ranchers in any given state.
2. Outreach and education
A major challenge for CRP-TIP participation is general knowledge of the program, particularly among current (and future) CRP contract holders. FSA should increase program awareness by:
- Notifying landowners earlier and more frequently about enrolling in TIP. Currently, FSA informs CRP contract holders of the TIP option in a formal letter sent during the year prior to the expiration of their CRP contract. However, six to eight months advance notice is often too short of a timeframe to realistically encourage TIP enrollment. Identifying a potential farmer or rancher and building a business relationship with them can realistically take years. Informing landowners about the TIP option when they first sign up for CRP, and again during annual communications with CRP participants, could certainly help boost program participation.
- Increasing targeted outreach to landowners most likely to be interested in and eligible for TIP. To the extent possible, FSA should target these communications to landowners who are eligible for TIP (currently, those who are retiring or retired). Additional statutory changes should be made to the program to expand program eligibility beyond just retired/retiring landowners to those over the age of 65 or to other landowners who may be interested in participating.
- Improving communications and outreach with landowners who utilize third parties to manage their CRP contracts. In addition, some CRP contracts are managed by a third party, making direct communication with the landowner difficult. FSA should take steps to identify best strategies for reaching and communicating with these landowners.
Another opportunity to boost program enrollment is to increase FSA staff education and oversight about the CRP-TIP option, such as:
- Ensuring county staff are aware of the program and are familiar with eligibility and sustainability requirements.
- Standardizing the county office reporting process, and sharing progress in TIP participation on a statewide basis to ensure that every office is aware of funding availability.
- Releasing an annual report on participation by state or county. This would also serve to raise awareness of the program, both across state and county FSA offices, but also with policymakers and other stakeholders who work both with retiring landowners and with beginning, socially-disadvantaged or veteran farmers or ranchers.
- Allowing CRP contract holders to opt-in to allow their contact information to be shared with beginning, socially-disadvantaged, or veteran farmers or ranchers who are interested in participating in CRP-TIP.
- Launching a regular webinar or conference call series for state or local FSA staff to share successful strategies in promoting TIP and/or addressing state-specific barriers. Guidance should be provided to all state offices on best practices and creative strategies to increase outreach to landowners and beginning, socially-disadvantaged, or veteran farmers.
The physical characteristics of land enrolled in CRP can affect whether or not it is suitable to be converted to agricultural production, and subsequently appropriate for enrollment in the TIP program. To improve targeted outreach for CRP-TIP, FSA should:
- Analyze historic data of the CRP practice codes that land was enrolled under and that was then enrolled in CRP-TIP. FSA should then identify land currently enrolled in those same CRP codes and conduct targeted outreach to those landowners regarding CRP-TIP.
5. Structure of the Program
There are several changes that should be made to CRP-TIP, either administratively or in the next Farm Bill, that would improve program usage nationwide. FSA should consider adopting the following programmatic changes to increase program participation:
- Examine leasing requirements. FSA should examine changes that would incentivize lease-to-own or actual farmland sales and transition of land ownership to beginning, socially-disadvantaged, or veteran farmers and ranchers.
- Clarify or simplify eligibility requirements. Others encountered confusion with the definition of “retired or retiring.” Landowner eligibility requirements should be simplified, administratively if possible or through the upcoming farm bill, to either expand eligibility to any interested landowner as long as there is a sale or lease-to-own transaction through TIP, or any landowner over the age of 65 in the case of leases.
- Provide stable and permanent source of funding for TIP. A concern cited by some FSA staff was their hesitation in conducting a wide outreach strategy on TIP with only minimal funds remaining. Stable and secure funding for TIP, established based on the CRP baseline, would also allow FSA staff to conduct wider outreach knowing the program’s funding and future to be secure, and TIP would benefit from this added funding stability.
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